Home / General / A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 12: The Mutant Metaphor (Part IV)

A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 12: The Mutant Metaphor (Part IV)


Face front, true believers!

In the last entry in this series, I was intending to write about Chris Claremont’s stamp on the mutant metaphor. However, recently I got bitten by a (non-radioactive) different idea and so instead I want to talk about another aspect of the mutant metaphor, a metaphor-within-a-metaphor, one that’s cropped up in many different eras of X-Men history: the comparison of humans and mutants to Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons.

The Claremont Run

Surprisingly given Kirby/Lee’s interest in evolutionary weird science (look at the Inhumans, for example), the Neanderthal/Cro-Magnon comparison doesn’t show up in Silver-Age X-Men. Even when notable anthropologist/genocidal-robot-creator Bolivar Trask showed up, the dominant tendency was to equate the X-Men with aliens from outer space. Instead, this particular rhetorical approach seems to have been one of (although not the only or indeed the main, as will be discussed in a future part of this series) innovations of Chris Claremont. It shows up very early in his run, where the re-appearance of the Sentinels marked the first time that the “All-New X-Men” would deal with the mutant metaphor:

While this is a rather brief appearance of the metaphor-within-a-metaphor, Claremont did set out some of the key aspects of how it would be used in the future. First, it is a rhetorical strategy of bigots and extremists, of unambiguous villains. Second, it’s used to argue for an inherent and inescapable violent conflict between mutants and humans, the polar opposite from Professor Xavier’s dream of co-existence. Third, it’s an argument that happens within human power structures; this kind of discussion about mutants is different from that of William Stryker and the Purifiers, or Cameron Hodge and the Right, or the Genoshan magistrates. Incidentally, it’s interesting how an early Claremont portrays the U.S military as socially and culturally progressive, something a bit more reminiscent of Stan Lee’s approach than Claremont’s later run.

This theme would recede into the background as Claremont shifted into high gear with the Phoenix Saga, but he would pick it up again in the “Days of Future Past” storyline, one of his major statements about the mutant metaphor (which will also be discussed in a future installment):

Senator Kelly is something of a strange figure in the mutant metaphor, positioned as an honorable, decent anti-villain, given much of the iconography of liberal martyrs like Robert F. Kennedy but also the architect of near-dystopias. He is also something of an innovator of the Neanderthal/Cro-Magnon metaphor in several directions: first, he added the fear that the human race might end as a result of being out-competed by mutant, that humans are in danger of being replaced. Second, unlike other figures in the larger Marvel Universe, he’s unusually consistent, equally afraid of the Fantastic Four and the Avengers as he is of mutants – the dominant line being between those with powers and those without. (Incidentally, this is a good example of why the X-Men absolutely make sense in the Marvel Universe and why the writers of Civil War I should have paid a lot more attention to their own continuity.)

As Kelly’s crusade for the Registration Act continued, Neanderthal/Cro-Magnon rhetoric would crop again when the Act passed into law and Val Cooper and H.R Haldeman stand-in Henry Peter Gyrich (more on him when I do Cap vs. Nixon), although this time the language would mutate:

Notably, the language of Neanderthal and Cro-magnon shifts from the biological to the geopolitical. This was not an entirely new theme: after all, in X-Men #150, Magneto had internationalized mutant/human conflict by demanding nuclear disarmament with a volcano machine as his means of deterrence. However, with the passage of the Registration Act forcing the X-Men into becoming fugitives from the law, the U.S now faced the threat of losing the superhero arms race to the USSR, which had no problem recruiting mutants into its national super-hero team. This tension between national security interests and domestic anti-mutant politics is a theme that really could have been explored more, with the threat of mutant defections to the Soviet Union or Soviet-lead propaganda efforts castigating American anti-mutant prejudice (in the same way that U.S race relations were in our own timeline). The unlikely solution to this dilemma was the creation of Freedom Force, the not particularly successful government-sponsored mutant team of ex-supervillains.[i]

Hominid Metaphors in the Early 21st Century

With the departure of Chris Claremont from the X-books in the early 90s, the Neanderthal/Cro-Magnon metaphor receded into the background for almost a decade, when it returned to the foreground in Grant Morrison’s New X-Men, one of the most influential runs of the post-Claremont era:

Given that this is the second page of the run, and a dramatic double-page splash at that, it’s safe to say that Morrison wanted the Neanderthal/Cro-Magnon comparison to be treated as important. For one thing, this scene shows Cassandra Nova weaponizing the metaphor to persuade Donald Trask III to perpetrate a mutant genocide on Genosha, the inciting incident for the first arc (and one that Morrison directly compares to the Holocaust). For another, there’s a pointed visual argument in that as Cassandra Nova is making this argument and backing it up by declaring herself to be the world’s “foremost evolutionary biologist,” she’s appearing in the pith-helmeted costume of the 19th century European colonialist, as European colonialism was tied directly to the rise of “race science,” the fear of competition from non-European peoples, and the eugenics movement. At the same time, we’re starting to see the metaphor coming under question by the hapless Mr. Trusk, reflecting an increasing debate within the scientific community (more on this in a bit), and the necessity of villains like Cassandra to act soon as the popularity of mutant culture and rising mutant numbers (two of Morrison’s key contributions to the X-Universe) threaten to change the face of human-mutant relations.

Around the same time as Morrison’s run, the creators of the first X-Men movies (which were inspired at least aesthetically by Morrison, hence all of that highly impractical black leather) decided to jump headlong into the same metaphor. To quote myself:

“…this gets even weirder when we segue from Nightcrawler’s attack on the White House to the Xavier School’s trip to the science museum. Here’s how Storm, an Xavier loyalist to the core, talks about evolution:

“Contrary to popular belief, Neanderthals are not the ancestors of modern day humans, but rather distant cousins who died out 30,000 years ago…they were replaced by a more advanced race called Cro-Magnon man, also known as Homo Sapiens…also known as human beings. In other words, all of us.” (http://www.scifiscripts.com/scripts/X-Men_2.pdf)

This is not the first time that the X-Men have used a Neanderthal/Cro-Magnon metaphor to discuss human/mutant relations…but it’s very weird coming from an X-Men. Not so implicitly (given how the camera is framing humans as the Neanderthals when they all freeze next to the dioramas), Storm is saying that humans are a dead-end and mutants are the “more advanced race.” And that’s really weird, because that argument has always been used by villains, whether we’re talking about Senator Kelly in the original “Days of Future Past” or Cassandra Nova in Grant Morrison’s New X-Men.”

Science Marches On

Ironically, at the same time that the metaphor was all the rage within X-Men circles, the science was beginning to change. For most of the 20th century, the “Out of Africa” hypothesis (which holds that modern homo sapiens left Africa 50,000 years ago and didn’t interbreed with Neanderthals, largely based on archaeological evidence) was dominant within the field. However, the advent of DNA testing in the late 90s allowed the consideration of genetic evidence. Papers published in 2006, which found only suggestive results but nothing conclusive, largely because they had to rely on partial sequences of Neanderthal DNA. The creation of the Neanderthal Genome Project would eventually give rise to a partial Neanderthal genome in 2010 and a more complete genome in 2013, allowing for more comprehensive comparisons.

This new research revealed that, not only do Neanderthals share much more DNA with homo sapiens than previously revealed, but also that most humans today have about 1-4% Neanderthal DNA in their genome – proof that Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons did indeed interbreed. Similar projects have pointed to environmental reasons for the declining population of Neanderthals that predate the encounter between the two species.

I would argue that, as science marches on, so should the X-Men.

Historically, the ideological conflict in X-Men has tended to be a three-way conflict between Magneto’s separatism, anti-mutant prejudice, and Xavier’s Dream of co-existence, all of those groups would be intensely concerned by the possibility that the dividing line between human and mutant could be erased through the interbreeding of both populations, which would suggest that they’d pay close attention to headlines about human evolution and genetics.

At the same time, given that many of the leading X-Men are not merely scientists but incredibly prominent scientists – Professor X has no less than four PhDs in Genetics, Biophysics, Psychology, and Anthropology, all from Oxford University, Doctor Moira MacTaggart is a Nobel Prize-winning geneticist, and Hank McCoy has no less than six PhDs – you’d think that one of them would bring up this particular pedantic academic point in a debate, or at the very least put it on the curriculum of the Xavier/Jean Grey School/Institute.

Finally, I think adapting to advances in science would be a good opportunity to work in long-term, meaningful change in the broader mutant metaphor. Too often, X-comics are afraid to break from the original status quo for any period of time, whether we’re talking about the stasis of “a world that hates and fears them” devaluing the successes of the X-Men in Dallas or X-Factor in New York City, or the idea of mutants as a tiny minority fighting against extinction (hence the flip-flop from mutant populations growing under Morrison to shrinking down to 198 individuals after M-Day, only to be reverted following the emergence of Generation Hope and the events of Avengers vs. X-Men, only for that to be reverted by the Terrigen Mists and M-Pox.

[i] Incidentally, has it ever been established what happened to the Mutant Registration Act in Earth-616 continuity? We know that the Supreme Court knocked down the Mutant Control Act in Earth-811, and since the departure point between the timelines was the assassination of Robert Kelly, presumably the makeup of the Supreme Court would be identical at the time of the Registration Act’s passage, suggesting a similar outcome, but as far as I know it was never formally repealed or declared unconstitutional. At the same time, the defeat of the 1990s Superhuman Registration Act in Congress and the need to create a new Registration Act in Civil War would suggest that it stopped becoming law at some point.

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